Archive for category French 20th century history

Journeys – Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

The journey that we most associate with the Holocaust is the one that ends at those gates.

Our imagination cannot go beyond that point, no  matter how many accounts we read from those who survived.  Our imagination baulks at the journey to the gates, not just at its ending – the cattle trucks from all corners of occupied Europe filled with people who not so long before had lives, loves, professions and occupations, and had all of those things gradually stripped from them till all that was left was a name on a list.

But for many of those individuals, the Holocaust journey began long before the cattle truck to Auschwitz.  The Plus qu’un nom dans une liste project has put together  many stories of individuals and families deported from France, and I’ve selected just a couple, to show what happened to them once their homes were no longer safe for them.

The Taussig family left Vienna in June 1939, having obtained a ‘Reisepass’, and left Reich territory the same month via the frontier post of Arnoldstein in Carinthia, where nowadays the three borders of Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet.  Rudolf and his wife Leonie, both 56, and their son Hans, 29, crossed into Italy through the Friuli province.

rudolf leonietaussiggif_1hanstauss

Italy had stopped allowing foreign Jews into its territory by this time, and  the authorities probably escorted the family to the Italian Riviera.   On 9 July the Taussigs arrived at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Cote d’Azur.  The gendarmes had been alerted by phone that a group of refugees were waiting on the beach for the people to whom they’d paid money for safe passage, and arrested them and took them to Menton.

Those arrested that night were:

  • Léonie Taussig, born 29/3/1885 in Vienna; daughter of Joseph Bondy and Bertha Donath
  • Rudolf Taussig, born 26/5/1883 in Chrudim, Czechoslovakia, son of Adolf Taussig and Louisette Teveles
  • Hans Taussig, born 28/6/1910 in Vienna, son of Rudolf and Léonie
  • James Landau, born 21/08/1895 in Breslau, son of Wilhem and Henriette Kehlmann
  • Bruno Kulka, born 30/12/1894 in Prerou (Moravia), son of Jean and Emma Herzka.

On 11 July Rudolf and family were transferred to Lyon, where he and Hans were interned.  Rudolf was freed in January 1940, and Hans on 21 February. On 23 April 1940 Rudolf obtained a refugee worker permit for work as a metallurgist which was extended till 15 July 1941. However, the tribunal in Nice judged them in their absence for having entered France illegally, and condemned them to a month in prison and a fine of 100 francs.  Rudolf and Hans served their sentence at the prison St Paul de Lyon and were freed in September 1941.  They requested emigration to the USA, where their daughter Alice had already settled – she and her husband had managed to leave France for Portugal, where they got a visa in Lisbon in March 1940.

The Taussig family were arrested during the round-ups in the southern zone in the summer of 1942, interned at Drancy and all three deported to Auschwitz in September 1942 on convoy 27.

The Taussigs’ journey – Vienna to Arnoldstein to Friuli to Roquebrune Cap Martin to Menton to Lyon to Drancy to Auschwitz

Gisela Spira fled Berlin early in 1939 with her mother and elder sister Toni.  The three women arrived in Brussels on 31 January, where father Herzel and brother Siegmund were already waiting for them.  The youngest brother, Felix, had already been placed by the Comité d’Assistance at the house of the curate of Wezembeek, east of Brussels.

spira_childre

After May 1940, round-ups of German and Austrians in Belgium as enemy aliens prompted the Spira family to go into exile again, and they crossed clandestinely into France.   They were interned there almost immediately, at Bram, in the Aude.  They were freed on 30 June, and found somewhere to live in Salleles d’Aude, where Gisela met Bertold Linder, ten years older than her, who she married in January 1942.

On 26 August 1942, the Spira family was arrested, apart from Siegmund and Gisela who had moved to Lamalou les Bains, and then to St Martin Vésubie, near the Italian border.  Herzel, Rosa, Toni and Felix were deported on Convoy 31 to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

On 25 December 1942, Gisela gave birth to a son, Roland.

Hundreds of Jewish refugees had been forced to settle in St Martin by the Italian administration. Many tried to cross the mountains, hoping to meet up with the Allied army.  In August/September 1943, a new danger appeared, as the Wehrmacht occupied the old Italian zone, and on the 10th, the Gestapo arrived in Nice.

At St Martin, the local refugee organisations told families to pack their suitcases as quickly as possible, and to follow the retreating Italian army. Siegmund, Frieda and Roland, and around 1,200 men, women and children then tried to escape across the Alps, a biblical exodus which took place between 9 and 13 September.  328 people were intercepted and escorted to the Borgo San Dalmazzo camp in Italy, under the guard of Italian soldiers until the SS arrived. Two months later, on 21 November, the camp was evacuated, and its inhabitants transported to Nice, where they were interrogated by the Gestapo.

Gisela, her son, brother and husband were deported from Nice to Drancy.  On 7 December 1943, they left Drancy on Convoy 64.  On 12 December, 13 days after Roland’s first birthday, on disembarking from the cattle trucks, Gisela and her son were gassed at Auschwitz.

Siegmund alone survived.  His journey continued from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated.   He settled in the USA.

Gisela’s journey – Berlin to Brussels to Bram to Salleles d’Aude to Lamalou les Bains to Saint Martin Vesubie to Borgo San Dalmazzo to Nice to Drancy to Auschwitz

What’s striking is not just how those journeys ended – it’s that process of seeking safety, finding it illusory, moving on in the hopes that the next place will be different.  Taking their old lives with them as they went from one apparent haven to the next.   In any of the convoys from Drancy there would be those who had sought refuge in France from persecution over the previous half-century from all over Europe, and those whose families had lived in France for generations.  There would be workers and bosses, Communists and conservatives, believers and non-believers.  Some of their journeys were long and convoluted, like those outlined above, with many apparent reprieves along the way until that final denial of their right to live.  Others had been rounded up on French streets where they had spent all their lives, and like Helene Berr, made only a short journey from Paris to Drancy before the terrible journey from Drancy to annihilation.

Those who destroyed them saw them as one thing only.  That’s the nature of genocide, nothing matters except that one defining characteristic – you are a Jew, a Tutsi, and therefore you have to die.   That’s why we have to make them, wherever we can, more than a name on a list.  Gisela Spira, Rudolf Taussig, Helene Berr, deserve their own stories, so that we glimpse the people they were, the people they might have been.

And if we can enter imaginatively into their journeys, can we not also think of them when we hear of those in our own time who are driven from their homes by war and persecution, seeking safety where they can and often finding further perils instead?

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‘That is not right’ Pt 2

It was sheer coincidence that in the week that Nelson Mandela died, and having been musing on integrity and courage, I read Robert Harris’s An Officer and  a Spy.  No obvious connection, one might think, between the death of a South African leader and a historical novel set in France at the end of the last century.  Wrong.

An Officer and a Spy is the story of Georges Picquart, one of the key players in the fight to win the freedom of Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, and who suffered humiliation, disgrace and imprisonment himself along the way.  The fascinating thing about this story, and where it differs most profoundly from that of Mandela, is that whereas Mandela, as a young black man in apartheid South Africa, was aware every hour of every day of the injustice that he confronted, Picquart was an establishment man, an army man, who trusted the chain of command and was trusted by it.  But he reached a point when he said, ‘that is not right’, and from that point on, he did not stop, even when it appeared he might lose everything.

Picquart.jpg

Picquart did not start by believing in the innocence of Dreyfus.  He had no predisposition to see conspiracy, or prejudice, at work.  He became uneasy, as he discovered tiny details which didn’t quite fit with the established version of events, but his crusade began when he realised not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but that the establishment knew this, and had no intention of doing anything about it, but would allow him to continue to suffer on Devil’s Island, whilst the real guilty party (also known to the powers that be) retained his freedom, his army post, his salary.

Picquart wasn’t motivated either by personal fondness for Dreyfus (he knew him, and didn’t like him particularly), nor out of lifelong principled opposition to the anti-semitism which allowed Dreyfus to be made a scapegoat and his guilt to be so easily believed (he shared the low-level anti-semitic assumptions of his era and his class, assuming that Jews put loyalty to their own kind above loyalty to the country they lived in).  His heroism lies precisely in those facts.   Once he suspected that an injustice had been done he had to know, and once he knew, he had to act.   He was demoted, sent abroad to high risk postings, kept under surveillance, his mail opened and his family and friends investigated.    He was himself accused and imprisoned, only vindicated when Dreyfus himself was freed.  He never faltered.

I won’t reprise the story of the Dreyfus affair here, because (a) it’s complicated and (b) you’ll have far more fun reading the account in Robert Harris’s novel. 

My own interest in it resides partly in its place in French history and culture.  Two of my favourite writers played a part in the story – Emile Zola of course produced the famous article ‘J’accuse’, in defence of Dreyfus, and was convicted of libel and removed from the Legion d’Honneur as a result.  

And  reading Proust made me aware for the first time how one’s take on Dreyfus’s innocence or guilt defined one, and divided society – dreyfusard or anti-dreyfusard, pretty much all of his characters are self-declared as one or the other.  As Boyd Tonkin wrote recently in The Independent:

In many ways, the Dreyfus Affair lends In Search of Lost Time its moral spine. For Proust the Dreyfusard, who organised a petition in support of the tormented prisoner on Devil’s Island and avidly attended the 1898 trial of Émile Zola for criminal libel after he published his famous denunciation “J’Accuse”, attitudes to Dreyfus not only split the social milieu he depicts down the middle. They test and define the mettle of his main characters. To the Proust scholar Malcolm Bowie, the case gave Proust his “great experimental laboratory”. It runs like a live wire through those seven volumes.

It clearly also is a fascinating episode in the history of prejudice and anti-semitism.  The case played its part in the founding of Zionism as a political force, as Theodor Herzl said:

“if France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated”

Herzl was proved right in the case of France, as only 36 years after Dreyfus was finally pardoned, and 7 years after his death, Jews were being rounded up on the streets of Paris, herded into transit camps and then into cattle trucks before being deported to Auschwitz.  Then, as there had been during the Dreyfus affair,  there were people who were driven by hatred, people who colluded in injustice out of fear or complacency but also, throughout that dark time, people like Picquart, who were unable to be passive in the face of such injustice and evil, and who risked everything to stand against it.

 

 

 

Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, 2013)

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/review-an-officer-and-a-spy-by-robert-harris-8859480.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/happy-birthday-to-a-timeless-classic-marcel-prousts-in-search-of-lost-time-turns-100-8937914.html

 

 

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More than a Name on a List: Hélène Berr

 

It’s Holocaust Memorial Day.   I’m thinking about how we can build bridges between past and present, by telling individual stories, by giving back to the people who were swallowed up in that terror their names, their faces, their uniqueness.

 

 

Frieda Linder-Kornweitz, from Vienna, died aged 31 with her daughter Karin (aged 7) at Auschwitz, December 1943 (http://jewishtraces.org/plus-quun-nom-dans-une-liste-frieda-linder-kornweitz/)

 

 

Sulamite-Solange Ast, age 18, died with her younger brother Marc and their mother, at Auschwitz in 1943.  Their father survived.

 

(http://www.holocaust-history.org/klarsfeld/French%20Children/html&graphics/T0453.shtml)

 

http://www.stolpersteine.com/

 

Sometimes we just have a name, sometimes a photograph and fragments of a life. And sometimes from the darkness a voice emerges that is so vivid that as you read you hear it, you hear the urgency, the passion, the despair and you want to reach out.  Helene Berr’s is such a voice.

 

 

Her diary describes her life in Paris between 1942 and 1944.  It  wasn’t published till 2008, but since then it has become an essential document of the Holocaust and specifically of the Occupation of France. After the Liberation, her fiance and surviving family members circulated the manuscript amongst themselves, but eventually it was offered to the Shoah Memorial, published to great acclaim, and since then has been translated into 26 languages.  It’s inspired an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial , which uses Helene’s story and her words to illuminate some of the darkest corners of those dark years.

 

Hélène has been called the French Anne Frank, but whilst both kept journals which have become key documents of the Holocaust, and both died in the last weeks before Liberation, they’re very different.   Others have noted the parallels between the publication of her journal, and the discovery of the manuscript of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.

 

However, these comparisons don’t do justice to the remarkable and unique qualities of this diary.  Hélène lived in the heart of Occupied Paris, walked its streets wearing the yellow star, worked with Jewish orphans, played music, fell in love.   And she wrote this poignant, vivid and impassioned account of the events she witnessed, ‘pour ne pas les oublier, parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier’, setting herself the task of recording everything, giving the unfolding tragedy its full weight, showing it raw, naked, without distortion.

 

16 April 1942

S said ‘The Germans are going to win the war’.   I said ‘No!’.  But I didn’t know what else to say.  I was conscious of my cowardice – the cowardice of not standing up in front of him for what I believed – so I shook myself – I exclaimed ‘But what will become of us if the Germans win?’.  He shrugged: ‘Bah! Nothing will change ‘.  I knew what he would say.  ‘There will always be the sun and the water’.  I was all the more irritated because deep down, at that moment, I felt the supreme pointlessness of all these arguments, in the face of beauty.  And yet I knew that I was falling under a malign spell.  … I forced myself to say: ‘but they won’t let everyone enjoy the light and the water’.  Happily, this phrase saved me.  I don’t want to be a coward.

8 June 1942

My God, I had no idea it would be so hard.  I was so brave all day.  I held my head high, and looked people straight in the face, when they averted their eyes.  But it’s hard.  …. This morning I went out with Mother.  Two kids in the street pointed at us, saying ‘Hey, have you seen? Jews’. But otherwise things seemed normal.  … A young couple were waiting, I saw the woman point me out to her companion.  I heard her say. ‘It’s heartbreaking’.  On the bus there was a woman, probably a domestic servant, who had already smiled at me before getting on board, and who turned serveral times to smile; a smart gentleman stared at me:  I couldn’t interpret the stare, but I looked back proudly.

18 July 1942

I felt guilty, that there was something I hadn’t seen, this reality.  This woman, her sister who has four children has been taken.  The evening of the round-up, she hid, but unluckily went back up to the concierge just as they came to find her.  Mme Bieder is like a hunted animal.  She’s not afraid for herself.  but she’s terrified that they’ll take her children from her.  ….  At Montmartre, there were so many arrests that the streets were blocked.  The faubourg Saint Denis is almost deserted.  They’re separating mothers from their children.  I’m recording the facts hastily, so as not to forget, because we musn’t forget.

31 January 1944

I used to quote, not long ago, a phrase from a Russian play: ‘We shall rest, Uncle Vanya, we shall rest’.  It meant the sleep of the tomb.  But more and more I say to  myself that only the dead escape this persecution; when I hear of the death of a Jew now, I think, ‘they’re out of the reach of the Germans’.  Isn’t that horrible?  We hardly weep for the dead any more.

15 February 1944

Why then does the German soldier who I pass in the street not attack or bother me?  Why does he often hold the train door for me, or say ‘Excuse me’ if he blocks my way?  Why?  Becuase people don’t know – or rather they don’t think any more, they’re just about whatever they’ve been ordered to do right now.  But they don’t even see the incomprehensible illogic of holding the door open for me, when tomorrow they may send me to be deported, and yet I will be the same unique person. … Also no doubt they don’t know everything – one atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They don’t know all of the horrible details of the persecutions, because there’s only a small group of torturers, and of Gestapo who are implicated in it. Would they feel it, if they knew?  Would they feel the suffering of these people dragged from their homes, these women separated from their flesh and blood? They’re too brutalised for that.  And then they don’t think – I always come back to that – I believe it’s the source of evil and the thing on which this regime bases its power.  Annihilate personal thoughts, the reaction of the individual conscience, that’s the first step to Nazism’.

 

 

Cultured and intelligent, a student at the Sorbonne until the anti-semitic laws prevented her from continuing her studies, 21 year old Hélène begins her journal in 1942 with an account of her visit to the home of poet Paul Valéry, who’s signed a copy of a book for her.  She is ‘overwhelmed with joy’.  At this stage, the war is, in a sense, just background noise.  Even so, even this early on, she senses a chasm opening up between her life, and that of her non-Jewish friends.  Little by little she is overwhelmed as she grasps the reality of what is happening around her, and the last words of her journal are a quotation from Macbeth  ‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’

 

Hélène constantly questions herself.  Should she try to get away, or stay in Paris?  She asks herself why, knowing what her fate is likely to be, she’s done nothing to avoid it.  She understands that the danger is increasing: ‘There aren’t many Jews left in Paris, and it’s the Germans who are arresting people now [rather than the French police], so there is less chance of escaping, because we won’t be warned.’  She believes, nonetheless, that to flee would be a defection, an act of bad faith.

 

In January 1944, Hélène writes ‘Will I make it to the end?’.  After several months of moving around each day and staying with different friends, she and her parents went home, for just one night.  That’s where they were arrested, on 8 March.

 

They were taken to the Drancy transit camp, and then deported, on Convoy 70 to Auschwitz, where Antoinette Berr was gassed on 30 April, and Raymond Berr was murdered in September.  Hélène survived for more than a year.  She was moved to Bergen-Belsen in November, where she was killed, just  five days before the camp was liberated.

 

She so nearly did make it to the end.

 

 

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Hidden

17 October.  A demonstration is scheduled in the heart of the city, against a curfew recently imposed on certain sections of the population.   There are about 30,000 demonstrators, men, women and children, many in their Sunday best, a signal of their peaceful intentions.   But the reception, as they emerge from the stations and move  towards their meeting place, is anything but peaceful.  The police are ready for them, their instructions to pay back one blow with ten, with the assurance that whatever happens, they have the backing of their superiors.   Of the 30,000, 11,000 are arrested.  Some of these are herded into buses and taken to a nearby sports stadium, where they are interrogated and beaten up.  Some are beaten and thrown into the river, or hung from trees and lampposts.   Probably – and we’ll never know for sure – 200 of the demonstrators are killed.

This happened in Paris, in 1961, to Algerians and others of North African origin, in the context of the Algerian War and terrorist activity by the FLN.   That it isn’t widely known about – was barely spoken of at all until the 1990s – is the result of one of the most successful cover-ups of our time.

It’s not that there were no accounts of these events at the time – the arrest, beating and murder of so many could hardly go unnoticed in the centre of Paris.    But in France itself, there was rigorous state censorship -  films and photographs were seized and destroyed, and journalists  found their reports buried or edited to match the official line that it was a riot that was firmly dealt with by the police.  This was echoed by most of the international press, who at best suggested that perhaps the police response was a tad firmer than absolutely necessary.   Amongst the Algerian community, fear of reprisals largely ensured that, even as people desperately tried to find out what had happened to family members who never came home after the demonstration, their experiences were not made public.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the massacre in her autobiography, drawing on her friend Claude Lanzmann’s first-hand account:

The cops were waiting for the Algerians at the exits to the Metro …  [Lanzmann] saw with his own eyes how they kicked them in the teeth and  smashed their skulls.  Bodies were found hanging from the trees on the Bois du Boulogne and others, disfigured and mutilated, in the Seine. …   Afterwards, I heard the … bare-faced lies: two dead, when we already know of more than 50.

Plaque commémorative du massacre des algériens...

Plaque commémorative du massacre des algériens lors de la manifestation du 17 octobre 1961 sous les ordres du Préfet de Police Maurice Papon, implantée sur la Passerelle de la Fraternité à Aubervilliers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That there is now a plaque on the Pont St Michel, and films and TV documentaries about that night in October 1961, is due mainly to the fact that the person in charge of the Paris police force at the time was one Maurice Papon, who in the 1980s came under scrutiny not for his treatment of Algerian demonstrators twenty years earlier, but for his complicity in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux almost twenty years before that.    During the course of his somewhat belated trial, the connection with the massacre was brought to light.

Didier Daeninckx’s noir policier Meurtres pour la Mémoire linked the massacre with the deportations (without naming Papon) in 1984, but interestingly was not the first fictional treatment of the massacre.   Black American writer William Gardner Smith wrote The Stone Face in 1963, and Kristin Ross, in her study of the afterlife of May 68, writes that:

It is a mark of the success surrounding the official blackout of information about October 17 that Smith’s novel, written by a foreigner in France and published in the United States (it could not be published in France), would stand as one of the few representations of the event available all the way up until the early 1990s – until the moment, that is, when a generation of young Beurs, as the children of North African immigrants call themselves, had reached an age at which they could begin to demand information about their parents’ fate. Professional or academic historians have lagged well behind amateurs in the attempt to discover what occurred on October 17; investigative journalists, militants, and fiction writers like Smith, or the much more widely read detective novelist, Didier Daeninckx, kept a trace of the event alive during the thirty years when it had entered a “black hole” of memory.

For many, Michael Hanecke’s film Caché (Hidden) was the first introduction to the 17 October massacre.  There’s only a brief mention of it but nonetheless it sits at the heart of the film, a film about memory and the burying of memory.  It led me to try to find out whether – as seemed improbable at first – such a thing could have happened and left so little trace.

Cover of "Cache (Hidden)"

Cover of Cache (Hidden)

There are so many aspects of this story that fascinate.  The connection between collaboration in the deportation of Jews during the Occupation and the violent repression of dissent by French citizens of north African origin even extends to the fact that an earlier crack-down on Algerian demonstrators by Papon had involved the use of the Vel’d’Hiv as a detention centre.   And the fact that an event witnessed by so many could be so effectively hidden from view reflects the way in which the history of collaboration during the Occupation had to be dragged painfully into the light over decades.

There’s also the contrast with the public response to the brutal suppression of a demonstration in February 1962 organised by the Communist Party – the eight who were killed became the symbols of state violence during the Algerian War.   One might have thought that this would have brought the October massacre back into public consciousness, but it seems to have had the opposite effect – it was simply eclipsed.  Le Monde even reported the suppression of the Charonne demonstration as the most violent state action since 1934.   Why?  The only plausible explanation is the fact that the October demonstrators, unlike those who were killed and beaten a few months later, were overwhelmingly Algerian or North African.

Of course, the notion of an official cover-up is terribly pertinent today as we await prosecutions, 23 years after the event, in relation to Hillsborough.  In both cases, what happened was both known and not known.  Known because these things happened in public places, because there were eye-witnesses, photographs, films, newspaper articles.  Not known because, in the case of the 17 October massacre those accounts were suppressed by the machinery of the state, and in the case of Hillsborough because no matter how often the truth was published and asserted it barely seemed to dent the falsehoods that had been disseminated at the time so vigorously by the police and others.

It took forty years for the victims of the 17 October massacre to be commemorated officially.  We don’t know how many of them there were.  We don’t know all of their names, or exactly what happened to most of them.   But the events of that night in 1961 are no longer hidden.

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